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  • Writer's pictureStephen Starrett

What is IPA, and not the drink?!

What is IPA? No, not that one...

IPA is the International Phonetic Alphabet, a system and tool in which each speech sound is represented by one and only one symbol. How is this different from the alphabet we use in English? When you are reading and come to the letter "c" how do you know if it makes the /k/ sound as in cat or the /s/ sound as in centigrade? The one to one correspondence is no longer present as the letter c may make a different sound depending on the environment.

As we know the English alphabet has 26 letters, but how many sounds do we have? I'll let you think about it for a moment...

...Linguistics state that American English has between 55-60 sounds, holy smokes!

A nice amount of our letters have a nice 1 to 1 correspondence from letter to sound. For example when we see the letter s, we know we are going to produce the /s/ sound as in the initial sound in snake. But what happens when we no longer have that 1 to 1 correspondence? How do we know which one to choose? Sometimes, a consonant cluster (2 or more consonants together) forms only ONE speech sound. This is already getting confusing, eh?

Time for a little imagery and practice.

Close your eyes and picture that you are sitting in a library working on a new proposal for work. It's nice and quiet until someone walks in and rudely is speaking on their cell phone. We can expect someone to give them a pleasant "SHHHHHHHH"! Although 2 letters are needed for the spelling (more provided for drama) , this consonant cluster only produces 1 sound /ʃ/ (the symbol from the IPA).

At DH-R.E.A.D., we build a foundation of all speech sounds present in the English Language. This starts of with an auditory discrimination task in which student's are assigned to distinguish one sound from another starting with vowels. Before the production of these begin, we want to make sure that they have the auditory foundation to distinguish different sounds. We start off small and in isolation, allowing time for the students to master each of the auditory characteristics of each vowel sound moving to consonants, clusters, and finally words.

A student may be presented with two letters,


while the instructor produces the sound of one of the letters. The student may point to the letter in which they think produces that sound. If correct (multiple times to make sure the sound mastered) we move on to the production of each sound. This continues for all vowels, consonants, consonant clusters, and finally words.

As we continue building this foundation, we work the letters and sounds that no longer have this one to one ratio of letter to sound. Our student's become fluent in not only in auditory comprehension and fluency, but they are able to state the linguistic rules such as why that "c" in cat is produced as the /k/ sound and not /s/.

If you would like more practice and would like to learn the IPA transcriptions (symbol to sound), you may use the link provided below.

If you have any questions, please reach out to us at DH-R.E.A.D.

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